After finding value of verse at Emerson, alumna becomes poet laureate

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • January 28, 2015

Courtesy of Priscilla Harmel
Courtesy of Priscilla Harmel

Emerson alumna Danielle Legros Georges, Boston’s new poet laureate, said she has witnessed the power of poetry in vignettes throughout her life. She recalled moments of visible enlightenment she has observed: a stanza being read aloud, a student’s thoughts finally crystallizing in verse, and a poem creating a connection between unlikely people.

Legros Georges’ appointment was announced Dec. 15 at the Paramount Center, and her four-year term began earlier this month. Legros Georges, who graduated from Emerson in 1986, said she is ready to grow poetry’s prestige in the city and engage Boston residents in expression and connection.

“My job is to remind people of the poetry in their lives—to re-energize their poetry sensibility and sense of self,” said Legros Georges, who currently lives in Dorchester.

Boston’s poet laureate is a fixture on the city’s cultural and artistic stage, and she is entrusted to elevate poetry’s place in the hearts and minds of Bostonians. It’s a ceremonial appointment chosen by a search committee composed of significant members of Boston’s literary community. Legros Georges replaced Sam Cornish, making her the second poet to serve Boston since the position was established in 2008.

Tom Johnston, responsible for arts programming in the city’s Office of Arts, said the poet laureate search committee was impressed not only by Legros George’s writing, but by her proposal about how to raise arts awareness in Boston. Johnston said her ideas for Boston were thoughtful and her writing is pertinent to both newcomers and natives of the city.

“Danielle’s poetry is timely, but also timeless,” said Johnston. “There’s a certain amount of gravitas she has. She’s very commanding. ”

As Boston’s poet laureate, Legros Georges said she plans to bring poetry to Boston residents in adult day care programs, assisted living, and nursing homes. She’s currently working on poetry programming for students in public schools and the Boston Public Library.

“The role of the poet laureate allows me to do programming that will reflect the diversity and energy of Boston’s neighborhoods, people, poets, and literary community,” said Legros Georges. “It also represents a great opportunity to connect with Bostonians and be a part of the wonderful arts and cultural activity of the city.”

Legros Georges is a professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, where she teaches American and African-American poetry, Caribbean literature, and arts education. She has a bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Emerson and an master’s degree in English and creative writing from New York University. She is a 2014 recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Poetry and published a poetry collection, Maroon, in 2001.

Her recent work focused on the Haitian diaspora—a narrative informed by her birthplace. Legros Georges was born in Haiti and moved with her parents to Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood at age 6.

“I have written about Haitian identity and the sometimes troublesome representations of Haiti in the U.S. from my position as an artist of the Haitian diaspora,” Legros Georges wrote in an email to the Beacon. “Toni Morrison writes of the violence that is oppressive language, and the limits is places on knowledge. I often wrestle with such language; and find myself engaging in linguistic experiments, attempting to create new visions, or recuperate hidden or buried sources of knowledge.”

Legros Georges wrote “Poem for the Poorest Country In the Western Hemisphere”—referring to Haiti—in the aftermath of the nation’s devastating earthquake in 2010. “Oh poorest country, this is not your name,” it begins. It ends with the lines:

“You, country, are the businessman / and the eager young man, the grandfather / at the gate, at the crossroads / with the flashlight, with the light, / with the light.”

It was in an Emerson class, Oral Presentation of Literature, that Legros Georges said she was first introduced to African-American poetry, solidifying her love for the genre. For Legros Georges, the beauty of studying at Emerson was in being constantly surrounded by talented peers.

She chose Emerson for its journalism program—as she had written and edited news stories in high school—and said at the time, she wasn’t aware of of the college’s creative writing faculty and resources, or that creative writing was a path she could take. She said she began to quietly write and read poetry. 

“Just being in that incubator of creativity shaped me as a creative person, critical thinker, and as a writer,” Legros Georges said.

Junior Kieran Collier, the current Emerson Poetry Project president, said he feels Boston works to prioritize the arts, and especially poetry, in the community’s culture, and when he learned of Legros Georges’ appointment, he felt poets and non-poets alike would be served well. 

“An Emerson alumna as Boston’s poet laureate is reassuring and inspiring,” said Collier, a junior writing, literature, and publishing major. 

Legros Georges said she writes when she is struck by an image, idea, or question, which she feels pulled to pursue.

“Poetry’s propensity for density appeals to me,” Legros Georges wrote in an email to the Beacon. “For me, poetry easily allows for unexpected comparisons, and great imaginative leaps—from the rendering of things fresh. I love language, etymology, idioms, and non-linguistic verbal expressions. Finally, I love the forms and architectures of poetry. Here poetry can come close to sculpture.”

Her poetry has been published in a variety of publications, including World Literature Today, Salamander, and The American Poetry Review.

But it’s not solely her poetry prowess that earned her the city’s honor. Legros Georges also brings an understanding of how poetry’s cross-cultural nature has the ability to connect diverse populations and uncover commonalities, said Priscilla Sanville, Georges’ friend and colleague at Lesley. 

“She’s the right person for the job because she’s so community-oriented,” said Sanville. “She has a great passion for sharing poetry and getting people to see the power of poetry.”

To achieve her goals for the city, Legros Georges will be paid an annual stipend of $2,000 and provided with a budget of $3,000 to organize events in the city, said Johnston. Legros Georges is next doing a reading at the opening of the children’s wing in the Boston Public Library on Feb. 21.

Sanville said she was not surprised when Legros Georges received the honor. Legros Georges is tuned into the pulse of Boston communities, passionate about sharing poetry, and a good citizen, Sanville said.

“She so deserves this,” said Sanville. “She’s the right person for this job at the right time.”